Book Review – sporting collectibles

An A to Z of Sporting Collectibles: Priceless Cigarettes Cards and Sought-After Sports Stickers: Priceless Cigarettes Cards and Sought-After Sports Stickers

by Carl Wilkes (Pitch Publishing, Durrington 2019) – £25

An A-to-Z of Football Collectibles: Priceless Cigarette Cards and Sought-After Soccer Stickers

by Carl Wilkes (Pitch Publishing, Durrington 2021) – £30

Carl Wilkes is generally recognised as a leading authority on sports cards and stickers and in particular those featuring British sports clubs and personalities. He was formerly editor of the Football Card Collector Magazine and has authored numerous articles in various newspapers, periodicals and books.

A quick glance at his website [] is sufficient to highlight the fact that there is considerable value in sporting collectibles with certain examples commanding big prices. Interest in old collectibles was boosted in the late 1990s by the internet and according to Carl there is currently a lot of interest in British items from buyers in America, Monaco and the Middle East which has kept values high. He makes the point quite forcibly that serious money is now chasing sports collectibles.

The Got Not Got series published by Pitch Publishing has played a big part in celebrating football club artefacts and ephemera and was the inspiration for my own book A History of Bradford City AFC in Objects (Bantamspast, History Revisited series 2014).

I have collected BCAFC memorabilia and ephemera for as long as I have supported the club and much of the pleasure of collecting the old cards and stickers derives from connecting with the club’s history. When such items were originally produced they were targeted at boys and were ephemeral by their very nature which means that only a small proportion of those originally produced still survives in mint condition.

Trade cards were included within comics, packets of tea, confectionery or indeed cigarette packets as a way of encouraging the purchase of the main (trade) product itself. That said, John Baines of Bradford recognised the commercial potential of selling sports cards – referred to by the American description of ‘trading cards’ – and the earliest football cards are believed to date from 1880 (the printer of which is thought to have been either Sharpes of Bradford or one of two Leeds firms). The phenomenon continues with such as the Pannini cards which continue to be sold. The production of collectibles came in response to a basic urge among many people to collect which appears to have been undiminished with time. Carl Wilkes refers to this as akin to the instinct of hunting.

It is unlikely however that John Baines ever imagined that his products might become traded for high prices or investments in their own right and yet a search of Ebay confirms that this is very much the case. Sadly, a collection of Bradford City or Park Avenue memorabilia is unlikely to provide a million dollar heirloom notwithstanding that certain individual items will command high auction outcomes. The big money tends to be focused on the fashionable, big clubs and their players (inevitably the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea) who also happen to have wealthy supporters. Likewise there is often a lot of value at stake for souvenirs commemorating landmark sporting events, one of the best examples of which being the 1966 World Cup.

Yet if a BCAFC collection is unlikely to yield big financial rewards the converse is that Valley Parade related artefacts are relatively affordable and hence accessible to supporters with an interest in club history. For example, cigarette cards featuring players from the celebrated FA Cup Final of 1911 are readily available on Ebay. The very fact that historically only a limited range of cards or stickers featuring Bradford City was produced also means that it is not difficult to collect most items, something unattainable for followers of Manchester United.

It struck me when writing A History of BCAFC in Objects that the memorabilia provides a story of the club from a different perspective, representing unique and random snapshots of the life of Bradford City and its supporters through the ages, some of which have been more significant than others. Collectibles evoke nostalgia as well as memories of past times, both public and private and sometimes they provide a better reminder of events than facts, figures or words. In other words there is more to collecting them than financial gain alone.

In his books Carl Wilkes provides a history of how trade cards and trading cards came about. In so doing he demonstrates how the popularity of sport became exploited for commercial benefit. Trade cards served to promote a product and were evidently effective given the persistence of trade card production to the modern era. Likewise John Baines created a business based on the sale of trading cards that featured mainly rugby, cricket and football personalities and these were originally designed for playing games or to be gambled in the hope of winning prizes. Baines cards incidentally nowadays sell for anything between £50-£500 apiece.

Carl’s first book provides an encyclopaedic reference of the principal producers of football cards and stickers, a fascinating business history of the different competitors in the market. The more recent sister publication published earlier this year covers a wide range of sports including amongst others rugby, snooker, cricket, tennis, boxing and equestrian as well as comparison to ‘soccer’ (revealing that his target readership is not exclusively British).

As far as Bradford is concerned, a disproportionate amount of surviving historic football cards relate to rugby as opposed to ‘soccer’ which reflects the sporting heritage of the district. (NB In West Yorkshire, football was the umbrella term used by the Victorians to describe both rugby and soccer.) Plenty examples of Baines cards featuring Manningham FC (based at Valley Parade) and Bradford FC (at Park Avenue) can be found on Ebay and it is notable that Baines cards are the principal surviving artefacts of both clubs. In fact it seems that Baines concentrated a lot of his attention on the local football and cricket sides of his home city. Hence Carl’s second book that features rugby provides insight to the pre-conversion heritage at both Valley Parade and Park Avenue.

Unfortunately there is only a limited number of City and Avenue examples in these books, a consequence of the fact that both were struggling lower division sides during the boom of trade cards in the inter-war period as well as in the 1960s and 1970s. Nonetheless it is fascinating to see the evolution in both design and form of football collectibles and most of the subject matter – ie famous players – will be familiar.

Carl features the rare cards that are valuable assets and provides tips to would be collectors about where to look and, crucially, what to pay. His advice on buying and selling is very detailed as well as candid. The caveat of course is that values go up as well as down.

The serious collector will benefit from these books as a reference of values and in the event that you come across a stash of old cards in the attic you’d be advised to check their values before throwing them in the bin. Items that might seem to have little value are quite possibly the target of collectors and capable of being sold for more than a few pence, complete albums in good condition being the case in point. However I believe that these books have wider appeal to football and sports lovers as a fabulous visual record of the history of collectibles. Both provide a fascinating read and are classics for the coffee table as books that can be dipped into. I recommend both without reservation.


 You can read my other book reviews from here.

Details of my own most recent book, WOOL CITY RIVALS: A History in Colour (volume 7 in the Bantamspast History Revisited series) in collaboration with George Chilvers: Wool City Rivals: A History in Colour